That was the question on the lips of my fellow concertgoers at the rousing March 2 Björk show in Shanghai, after the Icelandic singer’s finale performance of the track “Declare Independence.” An impassioned, angry anthem from the recent Volta, the lyrics—“Don’t let them do that to you,” “Protect your language,” and “Raise your flag”—were given an extra charge when, while the backing brass band lulled, Björk whispered close to the microphone, “Tibet, Tibet.”
Such a direct call for Tibetan independence is a shocking gesture by a visiting artist to China, which has ruled its westernmost region since 1951. Although activists argue that Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is the rightful ruler, such discussion is taboo. Indeed, state-run media did not report on Björk’s verboten murmurings, though Chinese language message boards lit up. One typical fan, as translated by the media source, Danwei, asked, “Wow, the nerve ! Where’d she get the courage to do this ?”
Björk has faced heat for this specific track before. The music video for “Declare Independence” shows the pixie-ish crooner in a jumpsuit bearing the flags of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which are ruled by Denmark. In Japan last month, she dedicated the tune to Kosovo’s struggle for independence—a gesture that angered the organizers of a Serbian music festival at which she had been slated to perform. She was knocked off the list.
At the Shanghai concert, fans stomped the bleachers when they heard her call, but there was no direct action to either calm the crowd or remove the singer. Security guards, who had been pacing the aisles during the entire show, didn’t so much as remove their white gloves ; perhaps because support in China for Björk is hard to dampen.
Björk’s fanbase in China is huge. Nicknamed “The China Girl” in her youth, Björk is known by fans here as “Bi-Ya-Ke,” the name they screamed at the 4,000-capacity Shanghai International Gymnastics Center, which looked about 80% full, and where seats went for as much as $210 U.S. Dollars. The Chinese singer, Faye Wong, bases her own success on a youthful desire to imitate Björk. Some Chinese fans at the show even sported Björk’s trademark tribal face-paint. When, to acknowledge applause, Björk sweetly whispered “xie xie” (Chinese for “Thank You”), fans only applauded further.
In response to the media hailstorm surrounding her murmur, Björk released a quiet statement : “I feel my duty to try to express the whole range of human emotions,” she wrote. “The urge for declaring independence is just one of them but an important one we all feel at some times in our lives.”
During the finale, the local fans around me belted out every lyric : “Damn colonists/ Ignore their patronizing/Tear off their blindfolds/ Open their eyes.” In Shanghai, the “Paris of the East” long ago colonized by the West, the Icelandic singer’s lyrics could very well refer, as she pointedly argued, to Tibet, but they say a lot more.